THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Evan Carter
Contemporary art is an ever-expanding field with rapidly shifting and expanded boundaries. This situation presents a challenge in locating form that puts pressure on established conventions and furthers the artistic mission of changing the way we look at the world.
In his book Beyond Objecthood: The Exhibition as a Critical Form Since 1968 (MIT Press), James Voorhies presents a compelling summation of a moment in contemporary art that has recently emerged. He cites a pool of artists, collaboratives, and institutions that, simultaneously, have produced work engaging what has, ostensibly, been disparate processes of curation, spectatorship, and discourse in the art world.
A Google search reveals that the author is a curator and art historian of modern and contemporary as well as Dean of Fine Arts and Associate Professor at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
The introduction titled ‘Warning’ alludes to artwork by Carsten Höller which, by virtue of its interactivity, requires the exhibiting institution to provide a warning that excuses them from any liability of injury sustained by participating viewers. Voorhies asks the question: “How did we arrive at this moment in contemporary art where there are legal waivers, helmets, warnings, and queuing-up in a museum for experiences that can be had better and more cheaply at a county fair or suburban waterpark?”
He raises the distinction between art exhibition as critical investigation versus entertainment that generates capital. He alludes to relational aesthetics as an idea that prioritizes the ‘search for new aesthetic criteria’ and highlights the misuse of the term under the auspices of social practice-based art and self-interested institutions that need a gimmick to get people through the door. Voorhies examines the various major biennials that since the 1970’s that have not only grown in popularity but also been fraught with critical debate. And of course Michael Fried’s essay, ‘Art and Objecthood,’ famous in the academic discourse of contemporary Western art, plays a significant role in his proposal.
The first chapter traces the steps that led to the idea of an exhibition itself existing as an art object rather than a staging ground for them. Michael Asher’s 1970 installation at the Gladys K. Montgomery Art Center at Pomona College in Claremont, California provides Voorhies with a representation of the art exhibition stripped of the modernist object and replaced with an architectural augmentation of the white cube. Asher’s work is deliberately untitled and refuses the inclusion of outside objects relying on the architecture of the space to generate an aesthetic experience where light, sound, and the path of the viewer through the space comprise the artwork being experienced.
Asher’s piece provides us the most straightforward example of a work that considers the act of going to a gallery to ‘look at art’ as a thing unto itself by being so deliberate in its omission of what is conventionally thought of as art. Asher’s piece helps establish the idea of viewing as an act unto itself. Further examination over the years by various artists show how different ideas of the exhibition as form occupy this kind of a space. Early and later examples include Group Material, Robert Smithson, Liam Gillick, Apolonija Šušteršič, and Thomas Hirschhorn to name a few.
Voorhies appears to be opening a lot of doors in the early chapters of the book but ends up focusing much of his analysis on New Institutionalism. In keeping with the value of exhibition as form, this movement places greater value on the ‘integrated engagement between art, spectator, and institution.’ The most prevalent symptom of this transformation is the widespread trend in having artists curate exhibitions or curators come up with exhibition concepts for artists to work within.
This process came to prominence in the multi-venue biennials and quadrennials of recent decades. Documenta V was a milestone in this timeline, thanks to the controversial curatorial effort of Harold Szeemann who turned the formerly ‘100-Day museum’ into a ‘100-Day event’. This event would consist of inviting artists to occupy spaces throughout Kassel and produce works guided by Szeemann’s theme of Questioning Reality—Image Worlds Today.
A number of prominent artists, even some that had participated in Szeemann’s previous groundbreaking curatorial effort at the Kunsthalle in Bern, rejected his handling of Documenta V and withdrew from the exhibition. They did so on the grounds that the curator was taking too much authority over the content of and works included in the exhibition, making the revered event feel more like a spectacle than exhibition. This shift in institutional roles between curator, artist, site, and spectator laid the groundwork for New Institutionalism which, in the fourth chapter, Voorhies treats as a terminal investigation that will go no further.
In his third chapter, Voorhies takes a backward step out the door to get philosophical and point out some of the cognitive tools we have to translate the experience of the new aesthetics. Citing the written works of Jacques Rancière, this chapter assesses the aesthetics of a critical art while addressing the shifting role of the spectator and the capacity for art to bear responsibility for the generation of tangible change. Rancière’s toolkit deploys the upsetting of aesthetic norms in order to provoke a critical thought process that influences the ‘ways in which we make sense of the world’.
In this process of making sense of the world and acting upon impulses to change it, likely for the better, the politics of institutional structures come under scrutiny. Much like Asher’s Pomona piece exemplifies the exhibition as form, the collages of Martha Rosler provide a clear example of Rancière essentializing the disruption of aesthetic norms.
Rosler’s collages utilize images from mass media platforms ranging from photojournalism to interior design catalogs. Through the lens of Rancière’s notion of aesthetics, Voorhies argues that media shows us the world in a way that governs our behavior without changing our comprehension of reality. It is in the media’s disruption of established aesthetic norms that our perception of the world and our ability to act changes.
Besides addressing the failure of New Institutionalism’s power to sustain defying norms, Voorhies expands on the result of this process. The aesthetics of New Institutionalism became grounded in educational systems as seen in the failed efforts of Manifesta 6 to generate a ‘new public.’ The idea of knowledge production occurring in the institutional space where the roles of curator, artist, and spectator are blurred is where any engine of change has settled.
Voorhies alludes to an astutely critical question from Claire Doherty in which she asks “If the exhibitions and projects … mimic the experience economy of the ‘real’ world, does this lead to yet more coded patterns of behavior for visitors rather than potentially surprising or liberating points of engagement?”
When it comes to surprise and liberation, Voorhies’ book upended a basket of snakes. Though he managed to wrangle a few in the end with his in-depth analysis of the rise and fall of New Institutionalism and dexterous use of Carsten Höller’s work to represent three sides of one argument, there is still much left unsaid in Beyond Objecthood.
Hardly any seemingly relevant performance work or more recent institutional critique comes to mind. And the role of the museum gets left behind in the dust of capitalism. In that regard, there is a conversation to be had that is lost with the complete omission of the work of Tino Sehgal who is not even mentioned and Andrea Fraser who gets a name drop or two but that’s it. When it comes to the disruption of established norms of institutional aesthetics, those are two artists that seem essential to the conversation, particularly in addressing the shifting role of the museum. Regardless, Beyond Objecthood is a welcome insight into a contemporary moment that will undoubtedly continue to unfold in fascinating ways.
Evan Carter is a contributing editor of the New Art Examiner. He earned his MFA degree in 2017 from the University of Chicago and wrote about Documenta 14 in the prior issue of the Examiner.